Friday, May 22, 2015

Of spring flowers, forest nibbles and an edible feast…

Of spring flowers, forest nibbles and an edible feast…

Our May plants apprenticeship weekend got off to an early start for those of us who were able to camp out at Alexis and Bobbi’s place on Friday evening.  Falling asleep to the sound of spring peepers and the pattering of rain on our tents and waking up to the sounds and smells of a glorious spring morning in the country was a great way to get into the groove of the weekend.  Saturday morning, woken by a chorus of birds, cows and frogs, we had a relaxed outdoor breakfast and waited for the rest of the group to assemble.  After a quick welcome and opening, and a chance to meet a couple of new participants to the course, we were on our way to a beautiful Grey County forest.  

Our first encounter was with a patch of wild ginger, which prompted some good words from Alexis to add to our ongoing conversation about ethical harvesting.  Wild ginger has some powerful medicinal properties to help with fever, respiratory ailments and indigestion, but it is a plant to be treated sensitively.  With ongoing habitat encroachment, we learned that it is best to harvest wild ginger very lightly or not at all.  Sometimes using a cultivated equivalent or a more common wild substitute is the best medicine!  We also noticed that the ginger, normally a hardwood species, was growing among pines, and that other hardwood flowers were also present here.  A fascinating example of tracking the human effect on the landscape: this colony is a remnant of a former maple forest that was logged for many years. We could see that the ginger was not as happy in the acidic soil of the pines as it would have been nestled among the maples that once covered this area.

We moved on to some more widespread and common species with large edible roots: dandelion and burdock. Again, Alexis prefaced the harvest with some wisdom on caretaking and ethics. Harvesting roots means taking a plant’s life, and so even more than taking other plant parts requires sensitivity and reciprocity: tuning in to the health of the plant and listening to whether it is ready to be harvested; and giving thanks, as is the time-honored practice of all cultures living close to the land.

Roots are best harvested before or after flowering: usually in fall, but potentially in spring.  Dandelion is a liver and kidney tonic and a diuretic, meaning it helps move fluid through the body.  It is particularly valued for this purpose because while it moves urine out of the body it also replenishes potassium.  The bitter flavour of the leaves is also great for the body, stimulating digestion, and adding nutrients often lacking in a modern western diet high in sugar and salt.  Burdock similarly has very bitter leaves, and its deep taproots are high in food energy, ideal for adding calories in any survival situation.

We moved along the trail and stopped to harvest some of the tiniest leaves of a basswood tree, and noted its multiple trunks and heart-shaped leaves.  In the same area, we selectively picked some tender bright-green spruce tips to infuse in apple cider vinegar.  At the foot of the basswood was a patch of daylilies, not yet flowering, adding another landscape tracking clue to the former homestead that was once tucked into this forest.  We talked about the edible parts of the daylily and the importance of distinguishing them from non-edible species.
We moved out the forest into a small clearing, which held the crumbled stone foundation of another old homestead surrounded by more useful plants.  As Lee and I slipped off to make a small fire, the others harvested catnip to brew for an after-lunch tea.  Nestled among a grove of cedars, we ate a companionable lunch and later sipped the musky-smelling and relaxing tea. 

Refreshed, we packed up and continued on our way, stopping to spend time with some bloodroot along the way – another beautiful native spring plant. We cut off the trail to find our way into a hardwood forest, and stumbled upon a small but incredibly diverse patch of native spring plants: blue cohosh, wild leeks, red and white trilliums, wild ginger, baneberry, Solomon’s seal, Canada mayflower.  A group of us spent some time with our Newcomb’s guides and an interesting plant with its stem growing straight through its leaves, and a dangling yellow flower missing some of its petals: quite a challenge since the number of petals is integral to the book’s classification key!  But with some persistence and intuition, we stumbled upon the identity of our mystery plant: bellwort.  Other sub-groups spent time carefully harvesting some plants for our dinner, as well as checking out a patch of poison ivy, for future avoidance!  Slightly down the trail, we found another beautiful plant with a white flower and spent more time with our Newcomb’s guides to discover that the plant was toothwort.  We read about the plants’ delicious and pungent roots and dug up a few to add to our dinner.  One of the roots was passed around for sampling, and was generally agreed to taste a lot like horseradish, with many exclamations of “so spicy!  But so delicious!”
As we headed back to our cars, we had one final stop at a red elder to discuss the differences between this species and sambucus Canadensis, the edible black variety, which was not yet in flower.  The name sambucus racimosa refers to the shape of the flower clusters on the red elder, which grow in rounded racemes instead of the flatter clusters of the Canadensis species. 

We were done our time in the field, but our day wasn’t over yet!  We headed back to Alexis’ place with our edible treasures, and spent a lovely evening together preparing and eating food, connecting, chatting about plants, and singing around the fire under a star-studded sky before heading off to our tents to rest up for what promised to be another full and exciting day on Sunday.

Written By:  Malgosia Halliop - 2nd year Plants Apprentice

Balm of Gilead Medicinal Oil

Here's a video I did for our Wild Plants Apprentices describing how to use the double boiler method for extracting the resins and medicinal qualities of Balsam Poplar buds.   They make a great infused oil that can then be turned into a salve for its antiseptic, anti bacterial and anti inflammatory qualities.   A very useful salve for use in many remedies.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Majestic Trees and the first Spring Ephemerals

On Sunday, Along the Niagara Escarpment,  we continued to learn about trees, and found several spring ephemerals poking through the leaves on the forest floor. There were tiny Spring Beauties with whitish pink flowers and Trout Lilies whose bell-shaped yellow flowers were yet to bloom. Tiny purple Violet flowers were growing in a sunny spot near Blue Cohosh's with their stems still purple as they emerge from the earth. We paused to harvest some Trout Lily corms, a sweet treat in the spring and in the summer and fall they have a taste more like potatoes. These early spring wildflowers grow, flower and go to seed in a forest before the leaf canopy grows thick enough to block out the sun.

We focused on identifying hardwood trees today, especially opposite branching ashes and maples.  We also found Ironwood, Trembling Aspens, White Birch, Black Birch, some Willows, Balsam Fir, and Common Elderberry shrub. We talked about forest succession when we came across Indian Pipe, a plant that gets it’s energy not from the sun, but from the fungus under the ground growing on the roots of trees. Also known as Monotropa uniflora, this plant has the coolest latin name of the many we learned today.

The Trail took us down the cliffs along a set of stairs. We paused for lunch near a pond and several folks sang some beautiful songs as we ate.  We tasted a thin slice of Wild Ginger root just before lunch, the unique maroon flowers should be coming out soon.  In the afternoon, we made tinctures.

Bright yellow Coltsfoot, has several features that distinguish it from dandelion, including purplish alternating scales on the stem, and heart-shaped leaves that don’t come out until after the flower does. We sat by the water, harvested some Coltsfoot and made a tincture in a mason jar.  Coltstfoot has demulcent properties, which means it can soothe a throat sore from a cough or a cold.  It’s expectorant properties mean that it can thin out mucous so that it is more easily expelled by coughing. We stopped by the creek to harvest some bark from a White Birch that had been cut down recently- it would make great baskets and other natural crafts.      
The Willows sat by the water; a small pond with some geese asserting themselves for a prime nesting ground.  Nine Painted Turtles basked on a log, they seemed to be unfazed by the geese’s loud honking battles.  A bat and several birds, sparrows and Red-Winged Blackbirds also inhabit this wetland.  As the clouds rolled in, the spring peepers started their mating song. We tinctured some Willow here, to be used to help with pain and inflammation.

Heading home, we stopped along another pond making up the headwaters of the Sheldon Creek.  We filled up our water bottles at a nearby spring. The path turned south and got steeper.  As we climbed through the cliffs we stopped to take a group photo!

The trail took us to a lookout at the top of the Escarpment. Looking out over the forest, we watched the turkey vultures soaring in the cliff’s updrafts and listened to some stories of Alexis’ adventures in this place many years ago. A closing circle was held at the top of the cliff.  We shared some gratitude and anticipation for the months to come before heading to the cars.

Written By:  Alex Thomson - 2nd Year Plants Apprentice

Trees, Owl Eyes and Cold Water

Saturday April 18 – Trees, Owl Eyes and Cold Water
 As we sat in our first circle of the 2015 Wild Plants Apprenticeship – the sun was out and so were the birds. In our spot along the Bruce Trail, many hikers passed us quickly as we sat and learned each others names in the cool grass dotted with raspberry canes.

Soon, we stepped a few feet further along the path to discover a tall, flaky barked tree. I scraped a young branch with my fingernail to release the smell of almonds that the black cherry has hidden under its bark. We spent many moments by this tree, harvesting some of its inner bark to make medicine with. Using knives and fingers, we were each able to take some bark with us, while stashing some branches to return to later.

Hiking past the first meadow, we found ourselves in a stand of pines, planted perhaps to break the wind across these fields. “All pines are evergreens, but not all evergreens are pines” was a lesson to remember. With five pine species in this region, we spent some time teasing out which one we were looking, and with five needles in each bundle, this first tree was in fact the official tree of OntarioJ

In a survival situation, pines are a reliable source of safe foods – but we were reminded “Don’t ever ingest anything that you don’t have 100% ID on”. Seems like some words to live by!

Further down the trail, we came upon a velvety-leaved rosette coming through the grasses. This biennial plant is a great medicine to support the lungs and airways, and when the flowers are steeped in oil, can also be a remedy for the common earache.

As we passed another stand of pines and some feeding sign from a porcupine friend, we came out to a south facing hill where some tiny lobed leaves were making an appearance. This new growth of the Ox-eye Daisy is uniquely flavoured and quite lovely in a salad.

Looking at pine cones and pulling needles, we spent much of our day absorbing the details of the conifers that allows us to differentiate them and begin to build relationships with these tall towers of food and medicine that once dominated this landscape.

Through a low cedar wetland, we found yellow birch, and even a wild spring where water can be drunk from the ground! The cool liquid was a great addition to our warm sunny day, and I loved the opportunity to have water that was known to be safe coming directly from the earth to me.

After crossing a precarious creek or two, many of us had removed our shoes and were varying levels of muddy. Walking into a hardwood stand, there were some stunning baby blue cohosh plants, and the young leaves of a Garlic Mustard.  With the Garlic Mustard sparking some interesting conversations around native and invasive plants, and sustainable harvesting, there was some excitement building for using and eating some of our more bountiful plants!

After sitting in silence in the late afternoon, we slowly came back together as a group again by the cold creek. With our bare feet on the earth, we were encouraged to spend a little time learning how to feel through our footsteps, and soften our gaze to use all of our peripheral vision. In “owl eyes” we walked slowly around the grasses and saplings, and I was so excited to see some moths and small flies pop into vision. I can’t wait for what I see next!

Written By:  Lee Earl - 2nd Year Plants Apprentice